Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided Monday that the time is not right for a political duel, and took a step backward. Lieberman declared that, "there is no crisis and there is no intention to leave the government," and Netanyahu responded with an embrace: "Yisrael Beitenu is a central and important partner."
The exchange of declarations in the morning created a convenient backdrop for a reconciliation meeting the two had in the evening. The coalition will survive in its current make-up and will find a solution that will allow for the burial of the conversion legislation, so that a rift with American Jewry will be prevented without a need to break up the government.
The two rival politicians find this an inconvenient time to break up their partnership. Netanyahu has no reason to change the coalition just for the hell of it in the middle of July, more than two months before the end of the period of settlement construction freeze, and when the Palestinians are making difficult, and posing new conditions to, renewed direct talks.
If Netanyahu were to replace Lieberman with Tzipi Livni now, he would appear as if he had given in too early to the Palestinians and the Americans. Such dramatic turns one does at the moment of deadline, on the eve of a major political move, in order to increase their impact on the surroundings and lower the cost.
Wooing Livni today would elicit sky-high demands from the Kadima leader. But if her inclusion were to be what is required to save the negotiations with the Palestinians, she will have to make do with a lot less than what she would demand if she had the option right now.
Lieberman too has no reason to leave the Foreign Ministry and the coalition, so long as his legal situation is unclear and at a time when he cannot leverage his stepping out for an improvement in his political situation. What will he say? That he left because of cuts in the budget of the Public Security Ministry? Or because of the conversion bill, which affects some of his Russian-speaking constituency, but is not relevant to the potential supporters of Yisrael Beitenu?
It is to Lieberman's advantage to leave the government under one of two circumstances: either as a victim of persecution by the police and the prosecution, or as the new leader of the right-wing opposition, who will fight against "Netanyahu's concessions." If he leaves now, he may lose ground.
But the sound of calm should not be misunderstood. The rift between Netanyahu and Lieberman is deep, and the reconciliation meetings of the future will not bridge it. Lieberman strongly opposes the three axes of Netanyahu's foreign policy: relations with the U.S., negotiations with the Palestinians, and the close relationship with Egypt. The foreign minister believes that Israel needs new allies in the world, instead of relying on the U.S.; he believes that negotiations with the "Holocaust denier" Mahmoud Abbas are unnecessary; and that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak should go to hell, or at least bring the Gaza Strip under his control.
There is also the background of political rivalry between Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, two parties that are competing essentially for the same voters on the right. Since the 2006 election, the situation has been that one can only grow at the expense of the other. During the next election, these two right-wing parties will do their best to undermine each other.
All these elements guarantee that the confrontation between Netanyahu and Lieberman did not end on Monday. It was only postponed.
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